Derrick Bolton, as you may know, is the Dean of Admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Nice guy, does good work. And has a stick up his you-know-what about MBA admissions consultants.
We don’t have any current, 2015 evidence of this. Maybe his stance has changed over time – but we don’t think so. Here’s what the GSB reported that Mr. Bolton said to the Wall Street Journal in an interview about Stanford admissions several years back:
When asked about applicants using admissions consultants, he replied, “How can someone who doesn’t know you help you be a more authentic version of yourself?”
(We quoted that from a 2011 post on the now-defunct GSB MBA Admissions Blog, which they took down in December 2014 – we captured it here just for reference.)
On the surface, that sounds like a very reasonable complaint. The adcoms want to see the “real you” (whatever that is) and we totally get it: How can a complete stranger help you to articulate who you are?
But there are three problems with this:
1. First, this statement actually sounds totally ignorant when we consider the approach that most MBA applicants take to the process of writing their essays. In our experience, EVERYONE starts off by trying to say what they think they should say. The first drafts we often get from people are stinky-poo material that make us want to hold our noses and grasp the thing by thumb and forefinger on outstretched arm, to hold it as far away from us as possible so as not to breathe in the stench. People spew forth annoyingly cloyingly yuckiness on the page in an attempt to be impressive. They don’t need a consultant to do that. Doesn’t Derrick Bolton know this by now??
2. The other problem with this is the assumption that people know who they are. Yeah yeah yeah we get it, you know that you like chocolate ice cream better than vanilla, and that you were born in Zimbabwe and now you live in Paris, and that you got a 710 on the GMAT… but is any of that who you really are? Don’t people go to therapists to discover themselves? Yeah, therapists… or counselors… otherwise known as COMPLETE STRANGERS.
3. Maybe it’s BECAUSE we don’t know the applicant that we can start to elicit those valuable kernels of truth lurking down in the depths. Someone who already knows you – or you yourself – may assume that X, Y, and Z are important or useful or, idunno, UNIQUE, and you may decide to emphasize that thing over others in your apps. But not only is a well experienced separate third-party person better equipped to help you figure out the “who you are” thing, that experienced person also has the benefit of seeing what other people believe is unique. We can spot patterns, and cliches, and old worn-out tired trends. We can help people not fall into the basic traps that everyone falls into – BECAUSE we don’t know you, so we don’t assume anything about who you are, you’re a blank slate, and also BECAUSE we see so many others who are trying to broadcast their “uniqueness” (and who often fail so miserably at it).
We also fully appreciate the problems that arise with a bad admissions consultant – someone who thinks there’s a formula to getting in to a school like Stanford (we heard one consultant insist that every person he’d helped with a successful Stanford app had written about a relative in their ‘matters most’ essay and that that was the only way to do it), or someone who thinks the same approach that works for Columbia will also work for the GSB. Or who just doesn’t have much experience in working with PEOPLE to help them dig into their stories and come up with the best material to present. Or who thinks it’s OK to tell people what to write. We have a big problem with consultants who do that (and BTW, we also have a problem with clients who want that – please don’t outsource the answers for what to do with your life to someone else).
A good MBA admissions consultant puts the client through a process (or if you’re an EssaySnark client, some may call it “the wringer” 😉 ) which is designed to guide the applicant
into the depths of their soul past the muck-a-muck obvious answers, past the this-sounds-good answers, past the superficial or less-helpful or just wow that’s so unrelated to anything answers, to the good stuff. The real stuff. The honest and true. The responses that resonate. Because they are coming from YOU.
Or at least, that’s our noble hope and intention.
A good MBA admissions consultant never tells the client what to write. We REACT to the ideas that a client has, and give them unbiased, neutral, third-party feedback. We coach them.
And, importantly: We give the reaction that A COMPLETE STRANGER MAY HAVE.
Since, after all, the MBA admissions committee person reading your app will, uh, be A COMPLETE STRANGER.
A good MBA admissions consultant will tell you when you’re full of it. When you’re a little too puffed up. Or when you’re being vague, or just generally confusing with the things you’re trying to say.
We help you sort through your ideas and come up with the ones that have the most potential. Then we tell you if you’re being clear on how you’re expressing those ideas.
Back to Derrick Bolton: He said much more than just that one soundbyte quoted on the GSB blog. In fact, here’s the entirety of his exchange with the journalist:
WSJ: There are so many admissions consultants these days. Do they help?
Mr. Bolton: Applicants approach the process saying, ‘What are the areas over which I have control?’ They see part of that as getting coaching or guidance from someone who may have seen more candidates.
Does it help? Does it hurt? It’s candidate by candidate. What I would always ask is, ‘How can someone who doesn’t know you help you be a more authentic version of yourself?’ Some people probably can, if they’re asking the right questions. There’s a fine line.
Hmmm. Talk about selective quoting, GSB. You’d think you could’ve included the whole thing on your blog.
Stanford GSB, love you guys, but along with the efforts we’re seeing of being more direct and clear with the instructions on your website, we do hope that you’ll consider changing your very rigid position on the value that good admissions consultants might provide to your applicants.
We had more to say on this topic in a follow-on post.
The full WSJ article is here . Special thanks to WSJ journalist Melissa Korn for helping us find it awhile back, since the link on the GSB blog was dead when we tried to retrieve it.